Lift-off: a first shot at languaging our journeys into space

In the last 50 years or so, about 500 humans have been propelled from Earth into space in one way or another for brief periods. In future, far more astronauts will follow them, and human language will be spoken much more widely off-planet. What is at stake as we begin to language our way to the stars?

Beyond the current trend for unmanned rocket-launches aimed at the sub-orbital, orbital and lunar orbital market and more interestingly the remote target of Mars, the possibility of broader spacefaring as an integral part of our planetary destiny is now on the table for the post-2050 generation.

Some fear that space will become weaponized and evolve into an off-world battlefield between rival Earth interests. Others see it as a new terrain for engagement where nations and enterprises can thrive and compete together under the rule of law. Both futures raise interesting questions about communication options and the life of meaning beyond little Earth.

Our human vision of language is built necessarily on the limited (yet intense) experience of tongues spoken by a single species dotted around our homeworld. And it’s not just a question of a single language. What we always encounter are group-based linguistic differences, not one homogenous community. Yes, “linguisticality” (a biological capacity for language) is our common inheritance. Yet all our languages evolve independently in their distinct geographical locales. From this perspective, multilinguality can look like a curse rather than a benefit.

The same inevitable variability probably goes for all other vocal signaling species: birdsong (is it locale-based or common to an entire bird species?), dolphin whistling, and dog barking all display root or branch variation of some form. For any visiting Extra Terrestrial Intelligences (ETI), therefore, this means there is no predictable human interface language to negotiate close encounters: prior intelligence will inform them they have to deal with one or more of the 7,000 or so tongues we speak, depending on where ETI lands and how well they’ve done their remote homework!

Language plurality, typically a plus for those who believe in the automatic cognitive benefits of multiple tongues, will also pose a problem when we get the first space-shuttles serving Mars or Saturn. Why? Safety and even psychological requirements will mean that everyone aboard will need to understand at least one shared language.

In the current regulations for the International Space Station (active since the year 2000), all astronauts have to speak Russian and English as mandatory tongues, which means intensive training for a Frenchwoman or an Italian. China’s manned space flights will naturally feature Mandarin-first astronauts. Various form of spacefaring rivalry will almost certainly underlie future progress in space exploration, but there will also be a lot of cooperation, especially if serious technical problems arise out in the ether.

From the reports published on the outlook for the US$400 billion or so global space economy (e.g. here), it is very likely that a fairly broad-based community of national efforts and private companies will soon be launching spacecraft and building first bases on the moon or constructing space hotels orbiting Earth. This will mean that all these organizations will all end up communicating with each other across space in various ways over sustained periods.

So which language(s) will or should become common space tongues if we continue with this communication security model? Alternatively, could we downgrade the problem by using an appropriate translate technology (e.g. a high-performance ear implant or similar) that learns by monitoring language habits?

This latter might offer a handy solution if the European Union were to enter the space race as an independent manned-flight player aiming for a planetary landing — in fact an unlikely gamble at present. The EU has however poured considerable funding into addressing the multilingual nature of Europe’s bureaucratic and technical communications, mainly by funding R&D into data-driven translation and now interpretation solutions that can handle speech and text in 24 official languages.

As a full-blooded space player operating independently of any individual nation state, the EU’s best bet in addressing the language issue would be to fund a ship-sized EU-language translation service. Yet this might not address the real problem.

Why not? Because although the world’s 24 most populous language communities include such EU languages as English (1st), Spanish (4th), French (7th), Portuguese (9th) and German (12th), no other EU languages feature in this line-up. Italian comes in at 27th and all the rest trail far behind. If the EU’s aim were to provide potentially competitive language solutions for a global communication marketplace in space, it would also need to invest in big-language tech for Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic and Japanese as plausible first-generation space-race languages that might attract clients.

One of the most common astro-scenarios is the initial building of space bases on the Moon. The reason is that the Moon’s surface only has 1/6 of Earth’s gravity, which makes it much easier/cheaper to launch a further space mission to Mars from the Moon rather than from Earth. We may find therefore that the various national and commercial space ventures that are gradually beginning to line up for an active 2030+ decade all speak different languages in their own bases, yet will need to communicate effectively on the lunar surface. The Moon might therefore offer a test case for multilingual communication in space, as the various national teams scattered around the lunar surface share information, insults, and jokes through a multilingual earpod.

Another interesting reason to build a solid lunar community is zero gravity. New human organs can be grown using 3D printing, or repaired easily under such conditions, making a trip to the Moon an ideal if expensive way to handle organ renewal.

The language issue will take on more importance when space for fun enters the marketplace, deploying reusable rockets and consumer bells and whistles. Entrepreneurs are already preparing for near-space trips for the wealthy, and the notion of a space experience as an enlightening leisure activity will surely become commonplace over the next 30 years. As we have seen, multilingual safety concerns will matter on both private and public space trips with numerous paying passengers. Which will in turn offer a small-scale foretaste of the problems raised by long planetary space flights with a multilingual passenger list — who speaks which language(s) to ensure communal health, safety and entertainment throughout a trip that largely outlasts today’s longest airplane flights?

It is more than plausible that the key source of solutions for this language issue will be the data automatically collected across all space flights, should this option be accepted as non-invasive in the world tomorrow. Anonymizable data on speaking and conversational habits, human physiology, and related activities could almost certainly be used to plan and improve the communicational ambiance and security measures on successive space trips.

You can even imagine companies in future selling human communication data analytics dedicated to tailoring conversational understanding to specific human groups, along with making medical-, personality-, and cognition-based recommendations about future linguistic ambiances aboard long-distance spacefaring craft, drawing on passenger profiles. But only if we master the data privacy issue haunting us today.

One influential effect of space tourism, initially sub-orbital and later in full orbit, could be to change some human mindsets. Leisure trips will obviously offer fabulous views of space and the chance to play at space jockeys, but these flights will also deliver more challenging views of our homeworld. We shall start needing new kinds of maps to engage closely with our own planet, new ways of transforming these real experiences into formats that engage more richly than simply being the object of photographs or videos. New media opportunities are likely to emerge.

If these unfamiliar perceptions of Earth are shared more widely via global social media, we may detect the emergence of a new human relationship with the homeworld itself. For example, thinking of ourselves as more closely interrelated within a single planetary ecology, as we see the oceans rising, ice caps melting, and weather patterns worsening. Rather than modelling Earth as a pack of warring tribes obsessed with territorial imperatives and power plays across land and ocean.

Nuanced though these passenger reactions might be, the very words we start using or creating in our various languages to address these new travel and viewing experiences will possibly inspire new ways of talking more holistically about what we see and feel. The views of these observers would then contrast interestingly with the advertising slogans generated by the space-tourism publicity machine.

Once full-channel communications are available, future space tourists will be able to stay in touch with their home base and share experiences directly with them through audio and video. This will help create new networks of cognition for sharing a space experience with home, school and work, and redrawing our inherited maps of Earth in the universe.

Interestingly though, this space travelling could also have the effect of blurring the differences between languages by establishing new universal lexical resources drawn from a shared space experience in a novel environment. Next stop Proxima Centauri.